Remember how, after Sharon Stone wielded an ice pick in the early part of the second coming of the gay 90s, it opened up the door to gay cinema? Well, nestled in that history is Grief, a gay comedy of sorts that stays close to underground gay cinema roots of mixing a really low budget with gay humor. But is this film all it's camped up to be?
Jo (Jackie Beat), the producer of the show, announces she's resigning in two weeks. Mark (Craig Chester) is dealing with the year anniversary of the death of his lover from AIDS, and also competing with Paula (Lucy Gutteridge) for Jo's job. He's also got a wicked case of the hot's for Bill (Alexis Arquette), who is supposedly straight and in the midst of relationship problems with his girl. This doesn't stop Mark's best friend Jeremy (Carlton Wilborn) from making a move. Then there's Jo's overworked assistant Leslie (Illeana Douglas), who is determined to be a writer, and trying to get her script to be used on an episode of "The Love Judge."
You'll notice immediately that this movie feels like it was a valiant effort by college students—perhaps to create an early, if watered down, John Waters film. Also, by the end of the film, I felt like it would have worked better as an IFC short film, rather than a full feature. It begins as a comedy, and although there are some funny moments, it seems to struggle to reach a level of camp that it never captures. As if to put a band-aid on this problem, interspersed throughout the film were wacky, unrelated 'clips' from the fictional show "The Love Judge" that were quite entertaining, and included some cameos by very recognizable B-movie faves.
Well-known drag queen Jackie Beat is undoubtedly going to be compared to the late Divine. It feels like she delivers every line while telling herself in her head to keep it toned down from her over-the-top stage persona. Not to mention, when the movie began, I wasn't sure if I was supposed to assume her character Jo was a drag queen or actually a woman. She was indeed real a woman (I'm not the only one who was confused. It's discussed in the commentary by the director—maybe her name shouldn't have been the masculine sounding 'Jo'?).
Craig Chester, who made a career of playing in gay movies in the early 90s (he explains why in his very funny book why), seems wasted in this film. His character mopes around, and every line he delivers is dry, coy or monotone. I know the character is experiencing emotional turmoil, but he seemed just lifeless for most of the film. There were very few points where his charm showed through and he actually seemed…alive.
Illeana Douglas is always a joy to watch. She's just so charismatic and funny, and has a great presence on screen. She never seems to be trying too hard to impress. I love her and was happy to see her in such an independent film (she discusses in the commentary how her agent told her being in a gay film would be suicide!).
Yet, the standout performances in this film are by Alexis Arquette and Carlton Wilborn. Alexis Arquette, also known for his flamboyant personality (and drag), pulls off incredibly convincing straight personality traits, and in his many years appearing in various films, I do believe he has quite a range. And then there's Carlton Wilborn. Well, let's just get it out of the way that he is drop-dead gorgeous with a body of death, and has a sexual magnetism that's too much to handle. Plus, you get to see him naked in this film. He was also one of Madonna's dancers during that most infamous tour in the early 90s. But, all that aside, he was such a natural talent in this film, proving that he can really act. And the scenes with he and Alexis together were emotional and heartfelt. They played off each other incredibly.
Which leads to my last point. The drama. The movie started as a not-so-funny comedy, but it's when it took a bit of a dramatic turn that it became most interesting and I began caring more for the characters and what the final outcome of the film would be. Unfortunately, the campy comedy and drama elements weren't blended together enough in the script to carry a full feature, as I mentioned before.
There are TWO commentaries! The first is with Illeana Douglas, Jackie Beat, and writer/director Richard Glatzer. The three have a really fun time reminiscing and supplying some good tidbits about how the movie came together. If you watch only one commentary, this is the one. The other commentary is again with writer/director Richard Glatzer, and this time he is joined by Craig Chester. Glatzer warns from moment one that he's going to repeat a lot of the same stuff from the other commentary, and he does. And Chester is just as monotone and bland as he is in the movie, and there's a much more serious tone to this commentary. I don't know what the deal is with this. Craig Chester is a funny guy (if you doubt it, read his book), but his whole participation in this movie was very low energy.